There are five stages of growing up when you're a sports fan. The first is when players you idolize start retiring. The second is when players you saw in college start retiring and the third is when you realize players entering the pros are your own age. The fourth stage is when they start to retire and you suddenly realize that you're older than everyone else in the league. And then there's death, when you realize that few things are more fleeting than athletic immortality.
Moses Malone was the best center I ever saw. I need to qualify that because I also saw Kareem Abdul-Jabbar toward the latter half of his career and grew up with Hakeem Olajuwon from the time he was a freshman member of Phi Slamma Jamma. Then there's Shaq, who is only a few years older than me. I was too late for Kareem, too early to fully appreciate Dream and couldn't shake the idea that Shaq was basically my own damn age. Moses came along at just the right time.
I have no sports memories prior to 1980 and then my family moved and our life changed suddenly. Perhaps that's why certain players from that time are permanently frozen in my brain: Herschel Walker, Mike Schmidt, the Miracle on Ice and Moses Malone. That was also the year that Larry Bird and Magic Johnson came into the NBA, but both players had a learning curve. As far as I was concerned, Moses was it. He was unstoppable.
He had already won one MVP award and he added his second in 1982, the year after taking an undermanned Rockets team to the NBA Finals. Then he was traded to Philly where he averaged 24 points and 15 rebounds en route to yet another MVP award for a team that already had Julius Erving, Moe Cheeks and a healthy Andrew Toney. It was unfair, really.
That was the year Moses said the Sixers would win the title in ‘Fo, fo,' fo,' and he was only off by one game. The Sixers won 65 games and I'll put them up against anyone else you got: The '86 Celtics, the '87 Lakers, the '96 Bulls, whatever. That's the team I'm taking in an all-time series.
Moses had already lived a full basketball life by that time. He was the first player to go directly to the pros from high school, signing with the Utah Stars of the ABA over Maryland. His recruitment was legendary in its absurdity, and there was talk that Moses didn't belong in college under any circumstances. He didn't say much back then, or later, but he was a hell of a lot smarter than people gave him credit for.
The apocryphal story as recounted in Frank DeFord's Sports Illustrated 1979 piece illustrated the moment when Moses took control over his career. With a pro contract in one hand and Maryland's Lefty Driesell laying it on thick in his living room, Moses looked up and said, "Stop jivin' me, coach." That was it. Moses had a way to getting to the heart of the matter.
His game wasn't flashy and he wasn't physically overwhelming in appearance. His thing was work, and no one ever worked the offensive boards better than Moses. (Malone ranks first all-time in total offensive rebounds. Dennis Rodman ranks slightly higher in percentage, but Rodman couldn't dream of doing the things Moses could do after he got possession.)
The 76ers started to fall apart after the championship, and Moses bounced around from Philly to Washington and later Atlanta. He was an All-Star throughout the 80s and averaged better than 24.6 points and 13.6 rebounds during the decade. In 1992, Malone averaged 15 and 10 for Milwaukee Bucks in what was his last productive season. He retired a few years later and I figured he'd play forever. His death at age 60 is an incongruous tragedy for a player whose game never aged and never wore him down.